Andre Perry is 32 years old. He's a commercial photographer, lives in Brooklyn, and loves fashion. He's also black. A month ago, Perry was stopped at a subway station by an undercover officer with the New York City Police Department. He was interrogated about his two-finger ring, arrested, and charged with possession of a deadly weapon—"metal knuckles."
"I'm not saying those are your intentions, but you could hurt somebody with this," the arresting officer says in a video recorded by Perry on his cell phone. Still, Perry was given the additional charge of "intent to injure." The crime carries penalties from a community service to a year in jail on Rikers Island.
"I was transferring trains at the Union Square. Walking from one platform to the other, I stopped to take a photo to post to Instagram," says Perry. "Out of nowhere, two guys approached me and started asking what I had on, pointing to my hand. I told them it was a ring."
That's when he says the plainclothes cops showed him their badges and he immediately started recording the interaction using his cell phone. Over the course of the two-and-a-half-minute video, Officer Jonathan Correa informs Perry that he's wearing a weapon, frisks him and escorts him to a precinct. The video ends just after the officer places Perry in handcuffs.
Laws on metal knuckles vary, of course, by state but most have some statute on the books that prohibits their possession. Some, like South Carolina, make possession illegal only if "used with the intent to commit a crime," while states like California, Michigan, Illinois, and Vermont prohibit the possession, sale, and use of brass knuckles. California is the only state that makes an attempt to define brass knuckles in its statute. California Penal Code section 21810 defines metal knuckles as:
"...any device or instrument made wholly or partially of metal which is worn for purposes of offense or defense in or on the hand and which either protects the wearer's hand while striking a blow or increases the force of impact from the blow or injury to the individual receiving the blow. The metal contained in the device may help support the hand or fist, provide a shield to protect it, or consist of projections or studs which would contact the individual receiving a blow."
New York state has no such definition. Without it, enforcing the law is up to each officer's interpretation.
Over the last 10 years, 80's hip-hop aesthetics have reemerged in mainstream fashion, including multi-finger rings. Designers for Lanvin, Givenchy, and Eddie Borgo—to name a few—have all included multi-finger rings in their collections and celebrities from Rihanna and Solange to Lana del Rey and Lauren Conrad have worn them.
Hip-hop icons like LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane pioneered this trend with their elaborate four-finger ring designs in the 1980's. Perhaps no wearer is more memorable, though, than the character of "Radio Raheem" from Spike Lee's 1989 Do the Right Thing. Radio, played by Bill Nunn, owned the central scene from the film using his rings to illustrate the cosmic battle between love and hate. Coincidentally, the character is choked to death by NYPD officer later in the film.
"It's not uncommon to see people walking around the city with two-finger rings," says Joshua Kissi, men's style expert and co-founder of New York City-based creative agency Street Etiquette. "The trend has come and gone but it's really back strong, especially for people who want to reference the 80s."
Kissi says that, despite the general popularity of the rings, he's not surprised to see the NYPD interpreting them differently when on black bodies.
"If there was a girl walking through SoHo with the same ring on, she wouldn't have even be stopped—let alone questioned and arrested," says Kissi. "It's clear that some people can wear items like Air Jordans and certain jewelry and be considered fashionable and creative, but when people of color do it, it 's dangerous."
During the encounter last month, Andre Perry can be heard telling Officer Jonathan Correa, "I feel so degraded right now."
Correa, who currently has a lawsuit pending against him from a previous arrest in 2013 involving a weapons possession case, replies, "You shouldn't. You gotta understand I'm doing my job."
Ronald Kuby, a prominent New York City civil rights attorney, agrees that Perry's arrest was reasonable.
"The law does not change in response to fashion trends," says Kuby, "and with almost all possessory offenses, one has to simply know that they're in possession of an item, not that it's illegal. Looking at what Andre possessed, it strikes me as the exact kind of thing the court would want to stop you from having."
Still, Perry feels that the officer took his race into account when making the judgement call between whether there was a ring or a deadly weapon on his fingers.
"I feel like I was profiled. Some people have no idea how easy it is for a black man to get a criminal record," he says. "Now I have to go through the legal system. I'm not some thug and had to spend the night in jail with real criminals and, while I was there, the officers were joking about all of it. The one who took my mugshot joked that I could post it to Instagram."
The NYPD has long been plagued by charges of harassment, misconduct and brutality with "broken windows" policing—exemplified in its controversial Stop and Frisk program—at the center. A 2013 federal class-action lawsuit put the city of New York on trial for unconstitutional and race-based stops. The city ultimately lost that case and, during the trial, two officers revealed that they had quotas for making stops, citations and arrests, and that they were specifically instructed by superiors to stop young men of color like Perry. [Representatives from the NYPD did not respond to requests for comment on this story.]
There were more than 6,000 arrests for criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree made in New York City last year, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. Blacks and Latinos account for more than three-fourths of those arrested. And, coincidentally, questionable arrests like Perry's are used in defense of Stop and Frisk. The program is touted for its effectiveness in taking concealed weapons off the streets. The number of criminal weapons possession arrests—which includes everything from firearms and switchblades to stun guns, slingshots and metal knuckles—is central to making that case, even if it includes fashion crimes.
As for what's next? Kuby says that state officials will ultimately have to convince retailers to stop selling items like Perry's ring, pointing to a spate of similar arrests made in recent years for popular knives. An analysis done by the Village Voice last year found that white suspects who were found by police to be carrying knives were significantly more likely to be let go than blacks.
"A large number of people, many who work with knives, were being arrested for possession of gravity knives. The knives were being sold by large chain stores, even sporting goods stores," Kuby says. "Finally, the DA's office persuaded merchants to stop selling them because they're illegal to possess. I guess the DAs haven't quite caught up to the fashion industry."
After reviewing Perry's ring, the Manhattan District Attorney's office decided to drop the charges against him " in the interest of justice." Perry says that's he's consulting with attorneys and planning on filing a lawsuit against the NYPD in the coming weeks for unlawful arrest.
If Perry wins his case or it's settled, he will join the ranks of more than 10,000 New Yorkers who, over the past five years, have successfully sued the city to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars. For the 2015 fiscal year, the city budget has set aside $674 million to pay judgements and settlements for claims like Perry's.
"This is something that should have never happened to me," Perry says.
Donovan X. Ramsey is a multimedia journalist whose work puts an emphasis on race and class. Donovan has written for outlets including MSNBC, Ebony, and TheGrio, among others. Currently a Demos Emerging Voices fellow, he's on Twitter at @iDXR.
[Photo via Universal Pictures; Image by Tara Jacoby]